The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting Trans. Michael Robertson
New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 386 pp., 20 color ills., 12 b/w. $35.00 paper
German artist and writer Anita Albus wants us to rediscover painting, by which she means the technique and subject matter of the great masters of the northern European tradition, from the 15th to the 17th century. Ultimately, she hopes, with The Ail of Arts (originally Die Kunst der Kunste), to reinvigorate contemporary painting through a return to the specificity and materiality of the medium. In the process she points us toward the philosophical implications of a kind of painting that focuses the viewer's wonder on the natural world, that imagines the viewer "as part of the painting" (p. 11), and that, in doing so, conceives human beings as taking part in a larger natural cosmos. Albus has produced a world of rhapsodic detail, ranging from pigments to alchemy, tobacco to toads, tulipomania to the religious significance of mills. While contemporary painters may not hasten to heed her prescriptions, the rest of us can greatly benefit from her text. Those of us trained as art historians may need to relax a few of our scholarly reflexes to enjoy it, as it does not fall comfortably into the genre of art historical scholarship. But, especially for those interested in the period with which she deals, it can serve as a model for a different way of writing about art.
The Art of Arts is lushly written in short chapters that themselves seem designed to mimic the Netherlandish painting technique of layering transparent glazes to produce a light-infused three-dimensional world-an impression heightened by the tall, thin format of the book. Albus begins, logically enough, with Jan van Eyck and progresses to Rogier van der Weyden, Gerard David, Hans Memling, Albrecht Altdorfer, and Joachim Patinir, ending with the flower and landscape (and reptile and bug) painters Georg Flegel, Johannes Goedaert, and Otto Marseus van Schrieck. She is unafraid of mixing biography, iconography, cultural history, and the analysis of pigments. The index bristles with unexpected names-writers and artists from Marcel Duchamp and Marcel Proust to J. W. von Goethe, Vladimir Nabokov, Nicolas of Cusa, and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), among others. This is in part due to Albus's claim that as painting has turned its back on the description of the phenomenal world, writers have taken up this task. "Why," she asks, "do the shades of Nabokov's unique universe...crystallize in the convex mirror of his art against the dark foil of life ...? Why does van Eyck's 'amplejowled, fluff-haloed' Canon van der Paele come to life again in Nabokov's Pnin, painted in minute detail-'the knotty temple, the sad musing gaze, the folds and furrows of facial flesh...'-when not a single contemporary painter...is able to create the illusion of skin that breathes?" (p. 286). Aside from being a very fine writer, Albus is an artist and (though this does not necessarily follow) has little interest in scholarly conventions for their own sake. Nonetheless, she has produced a book that is painstakingly researched and amply footnoted. Albus is well aware, as she makes evident in subtle jabs at historicist dogma, of the scholarly conventions that she is flouting. She liberates herself from them through her implicit focus on what is useful to a painter today in the historical traditions through which she lovingly browses. This has the potential to lead to a certain amount of romanticization, which will not be to everyone's taste. Another way to describe it, though, is rich description mingled with provocative philosophical musing.
Albus is interested in rematerializing the way we look at painting, focusing our attention on its "material quality," which, she argues, must be "perceived as a living whole" (p. 12). She also wants to respiritualize its objects, specifically, though not exclusively, its natural objects-animals, birds, plants, landscape-to convey a sense of wonder in the living world of nature. …